I shall not live in vain


Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain:

If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool the pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.


It’s my father’s birthday today. He would have been in his seventies. His hair would be so white, but his face would be the same. Elastic, wrinkle-free. The face of a man who has little to worry. When he died, I didn’t have this poem in my pocket. We don’t go carrying poems in our pockets just when we need them the most. Without poetry, I was inconsolable at fifteen. It would be years before I discover the beauty and serenity in their comfort, which is more enduring than a kin’s touch or kiss.

One of the first “bereavement” poems that I liked was Rosetti’s Remember, a love poem that asks the surviving lover to remember without regret:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Another poem that consoled me is Mary Elizabeth Frye’s Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep. It is said that a soldier’s father read it on his son’s passing, decades after the poem was forgotten, and it has since become popular in Britain. This poem is special to me because of the exquisite use of similes, which reminds me of another poem of Dickinson’s (Hope is the thing with feathers).

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

I cling to these poems because this is one story in my life that is unchanged. And yet. And yet this bittersweet ending to my grief is a miraculous thing. At last, I am at peace.

3 thoughts on “I shall not live in vain

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